Utah House committee abruptly yanks bill expanding use of ranked-choice voting from agenda

Vocal opposition and lack of support prompted the last-minute change in the House Government Operations Committee.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Opponents of a bill to expand the use of rank choice voting, distribute stickers to people attending a hearing on the the measure at the Utah Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, before the bill was yanked from the agenda shortly before the meeting started.

A House committee abruptly yanked a bill dealing with ranked-choice voting off their agenda Wednesday afternoon.

HB178 from Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, expands the use of ranked-choice voting in primary and general elections with more than two candidates. Last year 23 Utah cities used the system during their municipal elections as part of a pilot program.

Lawmakers have faced withering pressure from opponents who organized an email and text messaging pressure campaign on right-wing social media and messaging apps, many of which are focused on baseless conspiracy theories about rampant election fraud. That appears to have paid off with the cancellation of Wednesday’s House Government Operations Committee hearing.

Opponents packed the committee room before Wednesday’s hearing anticipating a chance to speak against the proposal. The last-minute change dashed those plans.

Utah’s dual-track nominating system allows candidates to secure a spot on the primary election ballot through signature gathering. Because of that, it’s become commonplace for candidates to win a party’s nomination with only a plurality of support.

In 2020, Spencer Cox won the GOP nomination for governor with 36.15% of the primary vote. Republican Blake Moore secured the 1st Congressional District nomination with just 31% support and Republican Burgess Owens won the 4th District GOP nomination with 43.5%.

Adopting ranked-choice voting eliminates that scenario. Voters are asked to rank candidates from first to last place on their ballot. The election is over if a candidate gets a majority when the first-place votes are counted. If not, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and those votes are redistributed to the next choice. The process continues until one candidate has secured 50% support.

Opponents of the election system point to last year’s Sandy mayoral contest that saw Monica Zoltanski defeat Jim Bennett by just 21 votes. There was some post-election drama when the Sandy City Council refused to certify the result and asked for a recount. However, the controversy was not caused by the use of ranked-choice voicing. State law does not provide a mechanism for a recount in elections that employ ranked-choice voting.

Winder has proposed a substitute to his bill that creates a task force to study the feasibility of using RCV in Utah’s 2024 presidential primary. That could come up for consideration later this session.